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Chapter One Showing the Past 0 n July 6, r8ro, the Panorama de Wagram opened its doors on the boulevard des Capucines, offering a representation of Napoleon's great victory to commemorate the one-year anniversary of the battle. An enormous circular canvas displayed in a giant rotunda, the Panorama de Wagram excited the admiration of both average citizens and cultural connoisseurs. "Crowds flock there to enjoy the imposing view offered by the picture," declared a review of the panorama in the highbrow Journal des Arts. Enthusing over the "perfect expression" of the panorama 's depiction of burned Prussian villages, of cannons exploding, and of Napoleon himself serenely surveying the battlefield, the critic marveled at the "striking truth" of the "vast and ingenious" spectacle, so lifelike as to make observers feel they were witnessing the event. "The illusion is total," the reviewer declared; "you think you've been transported to the scene."1 To the Parisian public of the Empire, the panorama seemed to have brought the past to life. The panorama represents one of a host of spectacles popular in France during and after the Revolution that turned history into a form of public entertainment. These shows, including the wax display, the phantasmagoria , and the diorama, drew crowds of spectators eager to pay to see images of the past, and particularly of the recent past of the Revolution and Empire , represented with an unprecedented visual realism. Exploiting the latest optical technologies, the historical spectacles of the early nineteenth 1. "Varietes," review of Panorama de Wagram, by Pierre Prevost, Journal des Arts, des sciences, de litterature et de politique, August 5, I8Io, 179. Showing the Past 19 century aimed at surpassing the illusionistic effects of conventional painting to startle and seduce viewers with representations of famous men and great battles. The press accounts of the time, along with the spectacles' receipts , bear witness to their remarkable success. Most studies of nineteenth-century France's historical renaissance, however , ignore popular entertainments such as the panorama and give the impression that the change in historical representation during this period was an exclusively literary affair. According to such accounts, it was the Romantic novelists and historians who, beginning in the r8ros and r82os, transformed the nature of historical writing. One of the principal arguments of this book is that the Romantic historical writing of Walter Scott and Jules Michelet can be seen as participating, along with spectacles such as the panorama, in a widespread movement to envision history in a new way. Indeed, the highly visual style of these Romantic authors has more in common with the popular spectacles than with the late nineteenth-century scientific histories that are commonly seen as their legacy. By transforming history into an object to be viewed and into a popular entertainment responsive to and dependent on the marketplace, shows like the wax display, the phantasmagoria, and the panorama provided a model not just for historiography, but for a range of historical discourses in the nineteenth century. Subsequent chapters in this book explore how more traditional media and genres of historical representation-including historiography -came to resemble the spectacles of popular culture. This chapter describes how popular entertainments redefined the way the past was seen and known, as well as the kind of ideological work that history performed , during the Revolutionary and post-Revolutionary periods. Offering up images of the nation's history in a public forum in as visually realistic a manner as possible, historical spectacles such as the panorama provided perspectives through which new individual and national identities could take shape through the consumption of a vision of the past. To trace this process is to witness the formation of one of modernity's founding illusions. Waxing Historical No trip to Paris was complete in the last decades of the eighteenth century or in the first decades of the nineteenth without a visit to Philippe Curtius's wax display. Opened in the rnos as a fairground attraction, the wax salon eventually found its permanent home on the boulevard du Temple and for a while also at the Palais-Royal. "The exhibition room of the 20 The Spectacular Past honorable Curtius is a spectacle worthy of the curiosity of respectable people," reports Jacques-Antoine Dulaure's Nouvelle description des curiosites de Paris, a guidebook from I 79 I, in its list of the capital's attractions . "One sees there colored wax figures that imitate nature in a most striking manner. One sees the faces of all...


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